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“Social Darwinism”: How a Catch-Phrase Grew

David Klinghoffer

At National Review Online, Jay W. Richards delightfully dissects President Obama’s remark of the other day that ressurected a left-wing slogan with a history that many who use it, to disparage the practice of free enterprise, would rather not know. But you would:

On Tuesday, President Obama denounced Representative Paul Ryan’s budget proposal, which would modestly reduce the rate of growth in the federal budget. Ryan’s plan is a “radical vision,” says the president, which amounts to “thinly veiled Social Darwinism.” Understandably, Ryan has called the comments “surreal,” since the Wisconsin Republican seeks to reform entitlements such as Medicare in order to save them. That doesn’t sound like Social Darwinism.
In fact, “Social Darwinism” is an old left-wing catch-phrase used to disparage free enterprise. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes reportedly said that one good catch-phrase can stop thinking for fifty years. This one certainly has.
In the ’80s, former Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale criticized Ronald Reagan’s economic policies by saying he believed in “social decency, not Social Darwinism.”
In the 1950s, historian Richard Hofstadter claimed that 19th-century American businessmen were Social Darwinists. Political scientist John West, however, has shown that Hofstadter’s thesis is largely untrue. Such arguments were favored by Darwinist intellectuals such as Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner, rather than businessmen and free-market proponents.

Richards concludes:

Free markets don’t create utopia. Businesses can fail and workers be displaced. In the long run, however, everyone is better off with economic freedom, which includes competition, than with the alternatives — anarchy, monopoly, cronyism, and socialism. By ignoring all this and invoking a catch-phrase such as “Social Darwinism,” the president is betting that the vast majority of Americans aren’t thinking. I’m betting that he’s mistaken.

Don’t miss reading the rest here.